Leading article: Cruel echoes of the Climbie case

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The Independent Online

Some crimes are unspeakable and the wilful breaking of the spine of a 17-month-old child is one of them. There is nothing more devious than the human heart. But if the twisted motivation of the three adults who perpetrated such an act is beyond words, the failure of the social services to prevent the killing requires detailed analysis. The fact that it occurred within walking distance of the house where eight-year-old Victoria Climbie was murdered six years ago, in frighteningly similar circumstances, only underscores that.

A massive inquiry followed the Climbie case and wide-ranging multi-agency reforms were put in place between social services, the health service and police. It is important to note that many people in the present case did their jobs well. The child's GP spotted the harm early and referred the baby to paediatric specialists. They concluded that the injuries were non-accidental. The child was temporarily put into the care of a family friend and his condition improved. But despite the baby being seen no fewer than 60 times by Haringey Council's child protection teams, the abuse continued because the authorities fell prey to collective thinking that the problem was inadequacy and neglect rather than deliberate injury. A paediatrician took a different view. So did the police officer investigating the suspected abuse.

At the core of the problem is the contention that children's interests are protected best by keeping them with their family, and giving that family support. In the vast majority of cases this is true. But there have to be mechanisms to guard against social services' taking too optimistic a view. Handing out stair gates, a fire guard and, shortly before the child's death, the offer of a seaside holiday were not what was needed by a woman with a boyfriend whom a detective described as a sadist fascinated with pain. And questions have to be asked as to why the police told the mother, who had been arrested twice for suspected child cruelty, that she would not be prosecuted. The next morning the baby was dead.

It is not enough to note that cases like this are extraordinarily rare or rejoice in the fact that Britain has one of the lowest levels of violent child deaths in the world. There are systemic deficiencies here which must be addressed.